It is late afternoon and the office of the extreme-right National Front party in Nice, on France’s Cote d’Azur, is abuzz with activists confident that Marine Le Pen, their leader, can make a big impact in the looming presidential election.
“You can’t believe how much success she’s had since she took over the leadership,” says Xavier, a pipe-smoking veteran party supporter. “She’s young, she’s media friendly and she’s more open than her father [party founder Jean-Marie]. We are getting lots of new members signing up.”
The firebrand Ms Le Pen has consistently seen opinion poll ratings of up to a fifth of the electorate, suggesting at least the possibility of her knocking out Nicolas Sarkozy, the president, in the first round of the election on April 22.
If she is to make a breakthrough, the 43-year-old will have to perform strongly in Nice and the surrounding southern regions, where concerns about immigration, crime and perceived Islamist influence have made the area one of the NF’s strongholds, along with the industrial north.
In the last presidential election in 2007, a triumphant Mr Sarkozy comfortably saw off the NF threat in the south. But this time, insists Lydia Schenardi, the party’s regional organiser, it will be different. Although Jean-Marie Le Pen trailed in fourth place in the first round in 2007 in the Alpes-Maritimes department that includes Nice, the NF ran Mr Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party a close second in seven out of eight Nice wards contested in local elections last year.
“Sarkozy’s promises worked in 2007,” says Ms Schenardi. “But he hasn’t fulfilled any of his promises. Nobody wants to hear about him anymore.”
Ms Le Pen has tempered the overt racism of her father. But the traditional NF campaign against immigration is ever-present.
Mr Sarkozy and the UMP are working to outflank the NF. Just last weekend, interior minister Claude Guéant provoked protest for asserting that “not all civilisations are of equal value” and talking of the need to “protect our civilisation” from those which “accept tyranny, the subservience of women, social and ethnic hatred”.
But Ms Schenardi says this rebounds to the NF’s advantage. “[They] say exactly the same things as the NF, and little by little there is a de-demonisation of the party and that helps us. It is much easier now for us to talk to people.”
As the campaign gathers pace, however, Ms Le Pen is not having it all her own way. Opinion polls show Mr Sarkozy consolidating his second place position—albeit trailing François Hollande, the opposition Socialist candidate—while Ms Le Pen stands still or slips a little.